By Valerie Fields Hill
Texas Metro News
Protesters at Howard University want the president of the 150-year- old historically black college to step down as the bitter battle between students and their campus’s administration a fight that has gained international attention–forges into a fourth week.
Members of the Live Movement, #BlackburnTakeover Student Advocates, Howard NAACP and the Young Democratic Socialists of America at Howard University said President Wayne A.I. Frederick has failed students by refusing to personally come to the table to resolve their issues and by using “tactics” and “gas lighting” to minimize their concerns over unlivable conditions in the university’s dormitories.
“For 24 days, Howard University students have slept on the concrete of the university campus and the floors of the Armour J. Black-burn student center and been met with blatant violence and callousness,” the four student organizations said in a news release issued Friday on one of the group’s official Instagram accounts.
“Congressmen and Congresswomen, national civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and celebrities such as Gucci Mane have rallied behind student protesters, yet still Howard University administration continues to step on their cries for help,” the organizations said in the news release.
“Therefore, we are calling for the formal resignation of President Wayne. A.I. Frederick in a united student, alumni and faculty front.”
The release was emailed to Texas Metro News just hours ahead of Dr. Frederick’s State of the University address at 5 p.m. Eastern time Friday.
It was unclear over the week- end whether protest leaders had asked Dr. Frederick directly to resign – or whether he even knew of the call for his resignation prior to delivering his address.
He could not immediately be reached Monday for comment.
During his State of the University address on Friday, Dr. Frederick said the tone of the protest’s rhetoric bothers him.
“I do want to encourage all of us, as a community, to be thoughtful about that, because that self-hate does bother me in terms of how we go at each other.”
He said the university has addressed complaints of mold and other safety concerns in its residential housing communities and has a long-range master plan to add more dormitory rooms to address a growing demand for on-campus student housing.
The projected upgrades and the planned new campus construction are costly, however, and cannot be achieved immediately, he said.
“This is an aging campus, no doubt about it,” said Dr. Frederick, a surgical oncologist and medical researcher who is a double graduate of both Howard and its medical school.
“That’s not lost on me at all.”
He said Howard has a $804 million endowment. By comparison, Harvard University has a $42 billion endowment to address infrastructure, faculty development and for recruiting top research scholars.
“That’s the difference in re- sources,” he said during the address. “That’s the difference between the haves and the have nots.”
Regarding university housing, he said Howard had secured 5,714 beds for students this fall; 94 percent of them are occupied. Management of the university’s dormitories is contracted to Corvias, a private property management company that also manages housing on U.S military bases.
For many of its upper-level undergraduate students, Howard administrators secured agreements with apartment complexes located in the District of Columbia and in Mary-land.
Still, Dr. Frederick acknowledged, on-campus dorm rooms could be better managed.
“Preventive maintenance has been lax,” he said, acknowledging that students had reported incidences of mold. He did not say how far back those complaints go.
“If it happens in one room, that’s a concern,” he said.
To address dorm maintenance issues, Dr. Frederick’s administration has set up an email address to receive student complaints. His office also has assigned administrators to each dormitory to streamline and expedite resolutions of any student complaints, he said.
Friday marked the first time that Dr. Frederick, who serves in a dual role as president and as a professor at Howard’s medical school, has spoken in public about issues surrounding the protest.
His address was delivered during an open forum attended by students and alumni.
Hollywood director Debbie Allen, a Howard alumna, at- tended the forum. Her sister, the Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad, also a Howard alumna, is head of the university’s College of Fine Arts.
In the past, Dr. Frederick has delivered his fall State of the University address during Howard’s weeklong homecoming activities, which were held this year on Oct. 18-23. He postponed this year’s speech be- cause of the protests.
The #BlackburnTakeover protest began on Oct. 12 when about 50 students staged a sit-in at the Armour J. Blackburn Student Center on the Washington, D.C. campus. They complained, among other things, about the upkeep and conditions of Howard’s residence halls.
As examples, Howard students posted pictures on social media of mold growing out of vents, from walls and ceilings, and on students’ personal clothing and shoes. They also posted graphic images of yellowish brown water coming from a wash faucet in one of the campus’s science laboratories.
Images of mold at Howard went viral under the hashtag “BlackburnTakeover.”
Since Oct. 12, the sit-in has gained supporters, including an estimated 150 students who are camping outside of the Blackburn building in tents where they are sleeping on air mattresses in a communal “tent city.”
Among the students’ other demands are that:
- the Howard Board of Trustees restore student, faculty and alumni “affiliate” seats, with voting rights, to the board so that student concerns are addressed at the university governance level
- academic and legal amnesty be granted to protesting students
- implementation of a long- range plan to address insufficient on-campus housing at Howard. Currently, many juniors and seniors are forced to move off campus because they are prioritized lower than incoming freshmen for on-campus rooms
- an in-person Town Hall with Dr. Frederick – not his Cabi- net members-to address student and faculty concerns
The sit-in has sparked international news interest: Al Jazeera Media Network, based in the Middle East, is working on a documentary, protesters have said.
Meanwhile, U.S. television and newspaper outlets, including CBS, NBC, CNN and ABC, all had covered the conflict as have The New York Times, the Washington Post, regional newspapers, digital shows, blogs and the NNPA, Black Press of America.
Politicians and other public figures have entered the conversation as well, citing among other things, an underfunding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, in President Biden’s newest budget bill, and a trend among elite universities to privatize or outsource many of their services.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, former Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other revered Civil Rights-era heavy-weights have announced solidarity with the student protesters.
Last week, Warren tweeted:
“For 22 days now, Howard University students have been protesting sub-par, private-equity managed campus housing. Corvias is responsible for these conditions & and its another example of why we need private equity reform. I stand in solidarity with the students,” Warren wrote on her official Facebook page on Nov. 2.
Monday, Howard’s Communications office released an advisory to news outlets blaring the headline “Students Have Our Undivided Attention and Care.”
The release highlighted, among other things, an announcement made last week by Vice President for Student Affairs Cynthia Evers that Howard University Student Association President Kylie Burke and Graduate Student Council President Ashley Grey both would be added as members of an unnamed committee on the university’s Board of Trustees.
The latest announcements, however, may be too little, too late. Some students worried that daily media attention surrounding the protest, the longest in the university’s recent history, had stained Howard’s pristine reputation, its highly-marketable brand, and by association, all the nation’s 100 or so historically black colleges and universities.
During Friday’s address, a student commented to Dr. Frederick that online criticism of the administration’s response to the protest did not live up to the elite private school’s reputation. Dr. Frederick appeared shaken by the comment.
“Howard is the Mecca. This is the HBCU of HBCUs,” the male student told the president, explaining that the school’s presence is why he chose to attend.
“I see a lot of stuff online that’s like ‘I’m glad I didn’t go to an HBCU. Look at what’s hap- pening (at) Howard’,” he said.
Dr. Frederick appeared to choke back tears in responding to the student.
“This is a special place, but it’s made up of people, not bricks and mortar,” he said, seeming to struggle for words. “The most damaging thing that gets to me is I know what the staff puts in when they come to work.”
The skirmish between protesting students and Howard administration has yielded unintended collateral: Contracted cafeteria workers employed by Sodexo have been laid off because the student sit-in at the Blackburn building has prevented them from cooking and serving meals on the campus, adminstrators said last week.
Dr. Frederick said he had refrained from commenting in media about the protest out of concern over the tone of the disagreement.
“Obviously, this is a difficult time for the university,” he said. “We are not always going to agree, but we must…have the dialogue.”
Meanwhile, protesters and some alumni supporters say that Dr. Frederick has failed to make a good faith effort to end the protest by meeting personally with the students sitting in at the Blackburn Center.
Instead, they said, he has deployed members of his Cabinet, including Vice President for Student Affairs Cynthia Evers, to address student leaders of other campus organizations, such as Greek-letter groups, while alluding publicly that he had met with Blackburn protesters.
“This could have ended a long time ago,” said Aniyah Vines, a Blackburn protester, during an update last week to supporters and news media via Zoom. “We are asking to meet with the people that govern this university.” She and other protesters said Dr. Frederick had refused to meet with them.
Further, #BlackburnTakeover students claim that Dr. Frederick also has refused to sign a written agreement he himself had requested to grant academic and disciplinary protections to protesting students.
Channing Hill, president of the Howard University NAACP, and a supporter of the #BlackburnTakeover movement, said attorney Donald Temple, who is representing the protesters, had submitted the written agreement to Dr. Frederick’s team outlining terms of the amnesty.
She said the university president had verbally agreed in a meeting with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, he would not expel the protesting students.
However, a day later, the University’s Office of Communications, released a statement saying administrators would not meet with protesters to discuss any terms until they had vacated the Blackburn building.
Hill said protesters interpreted the statement as an indication that no verbal agreement had been reached between the Rev. Jackson and Dr. Frederick regarding the issue of amnesty.
As a result, Hill said, “a signed agreement will get us out of the building.” Hill, is a junior from Bedford, Tex., majoring in Strategic, Legal and Management Communication.
Protesters also worry that the appointment of fellow students to a committee does not go far enough in ensuring permanence or shared governance on Howard’s Board of Trustees, whose membership, they said, is comprised largely of corporate executives with few ties to the university.
She said committee members serve at the leisure of the board and, as such, may be dismissed at will.
Some Howard alumni shared the similar concerns.
“Appointments controlled by the Board dilutes stakeholders’ voices and diminishes significantly the role of students, alumni and
faculty in important decisions and the development of policies and procedures for Howard University,” members of Howard Alumni United wrote in a statement sent to media in response to Howard’s announcement.
“Committees merely make recommendations to the board that it may or may not follow,” the organization wrote.
Meanwhile, Dr. Frederick indicated in his address that the spar- ring between the two sides had become personal.
“I don’t like to have a back and forth publicly about what we need to do,” he said during his address. Some of the issues…are complicated,” he said.
“To blanketly say the ‘the administration’ or ‘the staff’ does bother me. It does hurt me.”